Into a Gorilla’s Arms


One family’s Memorial Day weekend outing to the Cincinnati Zoo didn’t end up as planned. While at the enclosure to the Gorilla World exhibit a three-year-old boy breached a barrier and fell into a moat in the compound. Immediately a 420-pound male named Harambe snatched the boy and at first appeared to protect him, but then started to drag him around when he seemed to become agitated by the screams from the crowd.

Within ten minutes zoo officials made the decision to shoot him.

The death of this endangered gorilla set off a storm of recriminations against the zoo for not attempting to sedate Harambe by using a tranquilizer dart. An online petition was launched calling on law enforcement and child protective services to investigate the mother for possible child neglect. Animal rights protesters organized a vigil outside the zoo.

Harambe is being mourned throughout the world.

The blame game is being played by seemingly everyone.

What has been lacking in the response to this tragic event is concern for the little harambe-gorilla-zooboy. He somehow did what four year olds do: get away from their caregivers in order to do what they want when they want.

It is a miracle that he wasn’t seriously injured. But he could have been. He also could have been killed.

A lot that is being written about this case is that Harambe had as much right to live as the child; not just because his species is in danger of extinction, but because as a non-human animal he has a right to life.

For the past few decades the concept of personhood has arisen within the legal field and in philosophy. We mostly hear of it in the campaign to grant personhood to fetuses. Are we seeing a manifestation of the theory of personhood in the outrage over the killing of this gorilla?

Perhaps. But what is being exhibited is what Peter Singer, in his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, called speciesism, “..a prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.”

In the case with Harambe and the boy, the practice of speciesism exhibits itself as the human having greater moral rights than the non-human animal. I can’t imagine that the zoo officials undertook an ethical evaluation of the situation and made a conscious decision concerning the boy’s moral right to live as being greater than that of the gorilla’s. It was a life and death situation and they acted according to our accepted cultural mores that place humans above animals.

As we evolve in our understanding of our relationship as a species to other living beings and start to question the hierarchy of animals in which we have placed ourselves on top, we will have to entertain the unsettling concept of speciesism and the meaning of the construct of personhood.

Do our own needs supersede those of other non-human animals?

In May 2015, an unlawful imprisonment case was brought to court by the Nonhuman Rights Project in an attempt to have two chimpanzees released to a sanctuary. This use of the legal writ of habeas corpus in defense of the right of liberty for an animal ultimately failed, but the judge admitted “claims that intelligent animals should have limited legal rights may someday succeed.”

Harambe was killed in order to save the life of a child. It is unfortunate that this had to happen.

What would you have done if you had just minutes to make a decision? 34BF5B5D00000578-3615099-image-m-91_1464545053716

Tough question, isn’t it?

So, let us not judge the officials who ordered the shooting of Harambe. Let us not judge the mother for any perceived or imagined failing as a parent.

In the the Book of Matthew is found this teaching: “Do not judge so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

Let us strive to be compassionate and tolerant of one another.

May we find ways to live in harmony with all animals, human and non-human.




  1. If you were a zoo official and a case like this arose again, what would you do?
  2. We are taught to judge the actions of others. Against what standards, etc. do you judge others?
  3. Do you feel a kinship with nonhuman animal species?
  4. Imagine an ideal world in which you could decide everything. What place would animals have in it?


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